By the early 1970s, the approximately two million wild horses of the West had been reduced to only about 10,000, a depletion factor of 99.5 percent. It appeared that the wild horse was, for the second time, headed for extinction in North America. In fact, the horse appears to be one of the first native American species to be wiped out by man.
BLM Estimated Wild Horse and Burro Population on BLM Land
Captured Wild Horses and Burros in BLM Facilities
2016 BLM Wild Horse Program Expenditures (in millions)
America’s Wild Horses: Then and Now
In 1971, more letters poured into Congress over the threat to our nation’s wild horses than over any issue in U.S. history, except for the Vietnam War. And so Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, declaring that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) were appointed to implement the Act, though most herd areas are under BLM jurisdiction.
Fast-forward 30 years: in 2001, after decades of failed herd management policies, the BLM obtained a 50% increase in its annual budget to $29 million for implementation of an aggressive wild horse and burro removal campaign; in 2004, the 1971 Act was surreptitiously amended, without so much as a hearing or opportunity for public review, opening the door to the sale of thousands of wild horses to slaughter for human consumption abroad.
The current situation is the result of a long history of failed policies, land allocation issues, and an intricate money trail (see The Politics of Extinction further down on this page). The BLM and the USFS, among others, are responsible for managing the nation’s public lands and are foremost the managers of wild horses and burros. Their responsibilities also include issuing public land grazing permits to cattle ranchers. These grazing permits cover limited areas of public land that are available for lease. So, for every wild horse removed from a grazing permit allotment, a fee-paying cow gets to take its place, and a public land rancher gets the benefit of public land forage at bargain rates. This is the number one reason wild horses are removed from public lands.
Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 mandated that wild horses be managed at their then-current population level, officially estimated by the BLM to be 17,000 (three years later, BLM’s first census found over 42,000 horses). To the horses’ detriment, both sides agreed to allow the government to manage wild horse populations at that “official” 1971 level. Eleven years later, a study by the National Academy of Sciences found BLM’s 1971 estimate to have been “undoubtedly low to an unknown, but perhaps substantial, degree,” given subsequent census results and taking into account the horses’ growth rate and the number of horses since removed. But the damage had already been done; management levels had been etched in stone, and processes for removal of “excess” horses were well in place.
The fact is that the 1982 National Academy of Sciences Report and two General Accounting Office reports have countered key points in BLM’s premise for its current herd reduction campaign. These government-sanctioned documents concluded that: (i) horses reproduce at a much slower rate than BLM asserts, (ii) wild horse forage use remains a small fraction of cattle forage use on public ranges, (iii) “despite congressional direction, BLM did not base its removal of wild horses from federal rangeland on how many horses ranges could support,” and (iv) “BLM was making its removal decisions on the basis of an interest in reaching perceived historic population levels, or the recommendations of advisor groups largely composed of livestock permittees.”
From over 2 million in the 1800s, America’s wild horse population has dwindled to less than 25,000. There are now more wild horses in government holding pens than thrive in the wild, with many of the remaining herds managed at population levels that do not guarantee their long-term survival. Still, the round-ups continue.
Over the past 45 years, federal law enacted by the people on behalf of their wild horses has been ignored. No strategic plan to keep viable herds of wild horses on public lands has ever developed.
Nothing but the facts...
To simplify a rather complicated issue, we’ve compiled the most frequently asked questions, as well as the wild horse issue in a nutshell and by the numbers to help you better understand and navigate the plight of America’s wild horses.
Q: Where are America’s remaining wild horses and burros?
A: Today, wild horses and burros can be found primarily on government-designated Herd Management Areas (HMAs) in ten western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Six states have already lost their entire wild horse populations.
Q: Is there an overpopulation of wild horses on public lands?
A: Wild horses comprise a minute fraction of grazing animals on public lands, where they are outnumbered by cattle at least 50 to 1. The Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 states that, in a given area, a certain amount of vegetation may be eaten as forage. Only when that amount is exceeded are there too many animals. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has overwhelmingly favored cattle in setting “appropriate” wild horse population levels, resulting in indiscriminate removal of horses and burros from public lands. From over 2 million in 1900, our wild horse population has dwindled to less than 25,000.
Q: Aren’t wild horses suffering from drought and starvation out on the range?
A: Mismanagement is at the root of most of these problems. Despite federal protection, wild horses have been relegated to the most inhospitable areas of the range. Still, they have adapted and survived; most horses rounded up by the BLM are well-fed and healthy. However, public land fencing often prevents horses from accessing scarce natural water sources and disrupts their widespread grazing patterns. In such instances, better in-the-wild management is the answer, rather than costly and traumatic round-ups.
Q: Are wild horses responsible for overgrazing on public lands?
A: The main cause of degradation of public lands is livestock use, not wild horses. Cows graze within a mile of water, while wild horses are highly mobile, grazing from five to ten miles from water, at higher elevations, on steeper slopes, and in more rugged terrain. A congressionally-mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences found that, in one year, livestock consumed 70% of grazing resources on public lands, while wild horses and burros consumed less than 5%.
Q: Is it true that wild horse herds double in size every five years and have no natural predators?
A: In its 1982 study, the National Academy of Sciences found “annual rates of increase of 10% or less” in wild horse populations, a far cry from the 20% increase relied upon by the BLM to justify its removal program. Wild horses do have predators, in the form of mountain lions and bears. In 2004, for instance, only 1 out of 28 foals survived in Montana’s Pryor Mountain area. Such low survival rate was mostly due to mountain lion predation.
Q: Aren’t wild horses a non-native species?
A: Wild horses are a reintroduced native wildlife species. Paleontological evidence shows that wild horses evolved on the North American continent over the course of some 1.6 million years. How they disappeared 11 to 13 thousand years ago, if in fact they actually ever became extinct here, is a mystery. When Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, he brought horses from Spain. Others followed. From these reintroduced animals came the great numbers of wild horses that eventually changed the culture of the Plains Indians. The Spanish horses soon adapted to the same ecological niche their native relatives had once thrived in. Long before the early settlers pioneered the West, they were here as a reintroduced, fully adapted wildlife species, 3 million strong.
Q: But isn’t the modern horse species a different one from the one that disappeared so long ago?
A: Most of those early differing species were genetically equivalent. Modern molecular biology, using mitochondrial DNA analysis, has shown that the genetic equivalent of Equus caballus emerged, diverged as a species, about 1.6 million years ago, disappearing from the North American continent presumably 11 to 13 thousand years ago. Even more recent molecular work has shown that the very latest the modern horse could possibly have diverged was about 300,000 years ago.
Q: How are wild horses different from domestic horses?
A: The result of five hundred years of natural selection, the American wild horse distinguishes itself from domesticated horses by both its morphology and its behavior. Natural selection has preserved the hardy traits of the horses that shaped the American West: a 1998 Kansas State University study found that wild horses are far less affected by bone disease than their domestic counterparts; wild horses also distinguish themselves by the remarkable hardness of their hooves. In addition, a University of Kentucky study has shown that, despite intense culling, wild horse herds are still genetically far more diverse than any breed of domestic horse. Some herds such as Utah’s Sulphur Spring herd are a direct link to the primitive Iberian horse and have been recognized by geneticists as a resource of “truly unique and irreplaceable genotypes, a zoological treasure.” These horses retain many traits of the endangered Sorraia breed, including triple dorsal stripes, zebra striped legs, and chest barring.
Q: What about burros?
A: Wild burros’ situation is even more precarious than that of their wild horse cousins. Descendants of the burros used by miners as pack animals in the 1800s can still be found in Nevada, Arizona, and California, where they share their habitat with bighorn sheep, a highly-prized hunted species that outnumbers them at least 16 to 1 on public lands. Under pressure from the hunting lobby, BLM consistently removes burros from their legally allocated range to increase the number of available bighorn hunting tags; BLM has set the population target for burros at less than 3,000 nationally. Meanwhile, the National Park Service has a zero wild burro policy: burros found on lands managed by that agency are routinely shot in an eradication program labeled “direct reduction.”
- Since the 19th century the number of wild horsed roaming the West has decreased by 98%
- The Government has wiped out wild horses and burros from 40% of designated habitat since 1971
- Since the passage of The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, more than 270,000 wild horse and burros have been removed from public lands
- 70% of the BLM’s budget is spent on roundups and warehousing wild horses
- Less than 3% of BLM’s annual budget is spent on using proven, safe, and humane fertility control and solutions to manage wild horses and burros on the range
- Managing wild horses and burros on the range would save millions of dollars a year
- Feeding captured wild horses in government holding facilities costs American taxpayers over $135,000 DAILY
- 8x more federal land is authorized for livestock grazing than for wild horses
- Livestock grazing on public lands costs American taxpayers a loss of over $132 million/year in direct costs — yet provides less than 3% of America’s beef supply
- Wild Horses and Burros have a small piece of the American Pie
- The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 245 million acres of our public land
- 155 million acres for privately owned livestock grazing
- 26.9 million acres allows wild horses and burros to be outnumbered by cattle by at least 50 to 1
- 82.5% forage is allocated for livestock use
- 17.5% is allocated to wild horses and burros
By Lewis Regenstein, The Politics of Extinction (1975)
One reason wild horses are so rarely seen is that man has, in the last few years, practically wiped them out. And although a federal law has been passed that ostensibly protects them, a concerted effort is still under way to kill off as many as possible of these last surviving herds.
When the first American pioneers began their trek across the Great Plains in the early 1800s, they noticed huge herds of horses, many grazing alongside the buffalo. These early explorers came to know the mustang better during the great Indian war of the 1800s, for the Indians were accomplished horsemen. They even bred their tamed stock into colorful, dauntless palominos and other war-horses, which were feared and respected by these settlers.
Horses in the wild have a complex and orderly social structure. Herds of wild horses usually consist of a harem of mares dominated by a stallion, which defends and protects the mares and their territory. The head stallion often carries the scars of countless battles, since he will not allow other adult males to approach his mares, and will fight if his territory is challenged. (Through this natural selection, nature guarantees that the largest, strongest males breed, thus keeping the gene pool as healthy and vigorous as possible.) The stallion is also constantly on the alert for mountain lions, men, and other predators; and if the herd senses danger, they flee, with the lead mare in front, and the others running in a single file behind her. The stallion brings up the rear, the most dangerous position, from which he can hurry his mares up, or — most importantly — take on an attacking enemy. Sometimes the stallion will pause and threaten the attackers with snorts and rears; at other times, he has to fight to defend his family. This tactic served the horses well over the centuries against wolves and cougars, but it has not worked so well against their most dangerous enemy — man.
The stallion normally does not allow his mares to roam away from the harem unless one is pregnant; and she is allowed to leave — along with an “aunt” or helper — to find a secluded spot to have her foal, with her friend standing by ready to give any assistance that is needed. The herds seem to have some sort of built-in birth control instinct, not producing colts in dry summers, but having several during wet periods.
In fact, little is actually known about their social and mating habits in the wild, but the herds seem to be close-knit and highly social. Author Hope Ryden once photographed a colt and several harem mares cooperating to shoo flies away by forming a sort of huddle and switching their tails in unison.
America’s horses are also valuable in other, more tangible ways, for they are important to the ecology and natural balance of the West. Vegetation seems to thrive in some areas inhabited by the horses, which may be one reason the Great Plains were once a “sea of grass.” The horses’ digestive system allows entire seeds to pass through their bodies, so that they tend to “replant” their own forage. They also help plants take root and grow by trampling seeds into the ground with their heavy hooves.
The horses’ presence benefits many other wild creatures in a multitude of ways. Ryden, who spent years observing and practically living among the wild horses, has seen deer and antelope grazing alongside them, taking advantage of their alertness. Her studies indicate that the strength and vigor of the horses may also help other animals survive the winter. During heavy snowfalls, the horses plow trails through the snow, creating passageways for less powerful animals. This sometimes inadvertently releases other creatures that have become snow-bound and trapped on mountain ridges or other inaccessible areas. The horses also open up frozen springs and ponds by breaking the thick ice with their powerful hooves, making it possible for smaller animals to drink. And in the spring, the horses often unclog debris-filled water holes by splashing about in them.
Today’s wild horses, so well adapted to their inhospitable surroundings, are the product of some 60 million years of evolution. The horse’s ancestor is thought to have been a primitive creature about the size of a fox which emerged sometime after the time of the dinosaurs. Called Eohippus, this diminutive animal had four toes, and lived in the dense jungles that then covered much of North America. Gradually, over millions of centuries, this tiny creature became larger, lost all but one toe, and developed into the modern-day horse. During this period, the horse’s ancestors learned to adapt to such enemies as giant wolves and saber-toothed cats. They survived and adjusted to such drastic changes in the environment as the coming and going of the great polar ice sheets that once covered America, to the rise of mountains and the disappearance of the jungles, which in one area was replaced by the Great Plains. Through change, adaptation, and persistence, the horse developed into an animal ideally suited for its environment. But there was one development to which the horse could not adapt: the arrival of man in North America.
Around 12,000 years ago, it is thought, bands of Asiatic hunters moved south into North America, destroying many of the animals they discovered there. Having evolved without the presence of man, North America’s large mammals were innocent and unafraid of humans, and made easy victims for these primitive hunters. It is not known whether epidemics or other natural factors helped decimate these horses. But it is known from fossilized, charred bones found at ancient cooking sites that these early invaders did hunt the horse, and that its disappearance coincided approximately with their arrival in North America. In fact, the horse appears to be one of the first native American species to be wiped out by man.
Fortunately, some wild horses had managed to cross the land bridge over the Bering Strait, which then connected America with Asia, where they flourished, and eventually spread as far as North Africa. Thus, even though the horses became extinct in their native land, some survived elsewhere, and were later reintroduced to their ancestral home.
Eventually, the horse was domesticated, and when the Spanish arrived in the New World in the 1500s, they brought with them relatives of America’s original herds. Because of their great strength, the Spanish breeds were able to survive the arduous journey across the sea and could carry heavy loads through the wilderness areas being opened up. It was probably the horse, more than any other single factor, that allowed the Spanish conquistadors to conquer vast areas of North and South America, subdue the Indians, and plunder at will.
The horse also made possible the early exploration of the west by Lewis and Clark, De Soto, Coronado, Cortes, and others. The Indians, at first frightened by these huge animals with men upon their backs, also learned to ride and use the horse. In time, the horse revolutionized their lives, enabling them to hunt buffalo more efficiently and have more leisure time to develop their culture. And, as anyone who has ever seen a western movie knows, the horse also became a formidable weapon of war for the Indians, allowing them to defeat the Spanish and control the West for some two hundred years.
Inevitably, many of the horses belonging to the Spanish and to the Indians managed to escape from their owners and run away into the wilderness, where the stallions would round up mares and establish harems. These runaways thrived and multiplied in their ancestral homeland, and became an integral part of the landscape of the West. In the late 1800s, when the last of the defeated Indian tribes were placed in reservations, many of their war-horses and buffalo runners were released to join their relatives in the wild, and the herds grew even larger.
But around the same time, a new danger presented itself in the form of the white settlers — and the wild horses entered the beginning of the end of their two hundred years of wild, free-roaming existence. Thousands of wild mustangs — as well as buffalo — were killed off by cattle ranchers and federal agents as part of the government’s policy of starving and subduing the Plains Indians so that the area could be opened up for livestock raising. Thousands of other mustangs were captured, tamed, and bred with other non-mustangs.
Still, at the turn of the century, there remained an estimated two million wild horses roaming the West. But taming the West meant eliminating these free-spirited animals, for there seemed to be no place for them in the plans of the cattle and sheep men. Within fifty years from the time the first white settlers arrived in the West, the 60 million buffalo were virtually wiped out, the Indians had been subdued and placed on pitiful reservations, and the wild horses had been driven off the lush plains and into higher, remoter, and less hospitable areas, where they would be safe — for a while longer — from the marauding white man.
But the appearance of trucks, airplanes, and other mechanized ways of hunting the mustangs ended their security, and they were located and driven out of even their remotest refuges.
One Nevada mustanger, Chester “Chug” Utter, is said to have captured some 40,000 wild horses for BLM. Time magazine quoted him as philosophizing, “There’s only one end to being a horse, whether he’s a champion race horse or a plug, and that’s dog food.” Ted Barber, a western bush pilot, claims to have corralled over 17,000 wild horses, using airplanes equipped with noisemakers, over a forty-year period.
The U.S. Forest Service also had a policy of killing off wild horses on its land, by rounding them up or shooting those no one wanted. Ironically, the horses appear to inhabit, for the most part, mountainous regions that are inaccessible to cattle, but the government seemed determined not to let the facts get in the way of their mustang extermination program.
The brutality and suffering to which these proud, gentle creatures were subjected staggers the imagination. In her article in Reader’s Digest, Hope Ryden, described the results of her first-hand investigation of the situation:
The usual method of mustang hunting is brutal in its simplicity. The hunters locate a herd by airplane, then buzz it repeatedly, sirens shrieking, to start a stampede. After blasting the stallion with buckshot, they drive the leaderless herd to the catching corrals — often a distance of many miles. Some horses, their lungs bursting from exhaustion, drop dead on the run. Others, piling into the corral, fight and trample each other. After the auction (they sell for a few cents a pound), the mustangs are roped and hobbled, dragged into trucks, and hauled to the packing plant.
Horses who die of shock or collapsed lungs are left to rot on the prairie. In its July 12, 1971 issue, Time magazine gave a vivid account of what happens to the horses once they are captured and arrive at the rendering plant:
Some were riddled with shotgun pellets and dragged aboard trucks half dead; others had their nostrils tied with baling wire, their legs broken, their eyes gouged out. Foals were left behind without mothers, who burst their lungs in futile attempts to escape the mechanized pursuers. Nor are foals born in the slaughtering house spared; they are normally clubbed to death and used for fertilizer.
By the early 1970s, the approximately two million wild horses of the West had been reduced to only about 10,000, a depletion factor of 99.5 percent. It appeared that the wild horse was, for the second time, headed for extinction in North America.
Despite the fact that the horses had been pushed into barren and remote areas of little agricultural value, many sheep and cattle ranchers, backed by BLM, wanted to destroy them to eliminate any possible competition with domestic livestock, which were being grazed to an increasing extent on public land leased to private stockmen by BLM. Hunting organizations also wanted to get rid of the horses and replace the herds with animals more of interest to “sportsmen”: target or game animals that could be hunted. Western state wildlife agencies favored this approach to wildlife management, since it would bring in increased revenue from hunting and ammunition licenses.
Even into the 1970s, the Interior Department continued its campaign against the horses, including those herds that were supposed to be protected. A good example of BLM’s attitude was demonstrated by its proposed action concerning the wild horse herd inhabiting the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range on the Montana-Wyoming border. When the herd exceeded 200 horses, BLM expressed concern that overgrazing might damage the land. Using this as a rationale, BLM proposed to cut back the herd drastically and to leave only 30 horses, according to one report, by killing or removing the other 170. One BLM biologist announced that the “only logical choice” to ease the “overpopulation” would be to destroy the “surplus animals,” and hold the population at between 80-90 horses. Such a solution would also enable BLM to improve the forage and lease the area to cattlemen for grazing. And to make matters even worse, the Interior Department’s National Park Service confiscated 5,000 acres of the horses refuge to build a road, fencing off two of their vitally needed watering holes.
Fortunately, a public outcry temporarily saved the herd from BLM’s “management,” and a more sensible solution — humanely transplanting some of the young horses — was instead undertaken with the cooperation of a private conservation group.
With the last of the wild horses being subjected to continued and increasing slaughter, sometimes with the encouragement of the state and federal governments, it was apparent that a new law was needed to protect these few surviving herds. As a result of publicity and pressure generated by Hope Ryden, Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie), and the American Horse Protection Association, several bills were introduced in Congress in early 1971 that provided greatly increased protection to the wild horses and burros of the West, by designating them “national heritage” species that “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Congress was soon flooded with mail in support of these bills, and Senator Henry Jackson (D-Washington) — one of the most effective proponents of the legislation — reported receiving 14,000 letters on the issue during a single week. Hearings were scheduled before the Senate and House Interior Committees, and it finally looked as if the horses might be saved.
But the battle was far from won. The opponents of providing adequate protection to the horses — mainly the wildlife management lobby and the livestock ranchers — were still around, and their attempts to kill or cripple the legislation surfaced during the hearings. The April 1971 hearings in both the House and Senate generated stiff opposition to protection for the horses in particular, and for the general idea of providing complete protection to any species, no matter how depleted. The wildlife managers were especially vehement in warning that such legislation might set a precedent for protecting other species of wildlife being managed on a “sustained yield” basis, mainly for the benefit of sport hunters. The strategy became one of attempting to insert so many loopholes into the bill, allowing killing of “surplus” horses, that the legislation would be ineffectual and virtually impossible to enforce.
Testifying on behalf of the administration, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — seeing that legislation of some sort was inevitable — proposed a weak, watered-down measure establishing only five ranges throughout the West, to accommodate only about 3,000 horses. The Interior Department’s representative, Boyd Rasmussen of BLM, also asked that the final bill “authorize the Secretary to control [i.e., kill] the population of unbranded, free-roaming horses and burros on the public lands.”
BLM’s testimony was followed by that of Jack Deinema, appearing on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, who recommended that “proper management and protection of these animals be the objective rather than strict preservation,” including provisions for the “disposal of surplus animals on the range. The Forest Service also implied that new legislation was not really needed, since “the authorities now available to the Secretary of Agriculture [the agency with jurisdiction over the Forest Service] are adequate for the management and protection of these animals.”
The western livestock ranchers, and their congressional supporters, also opposed effective legislation. Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) testified that “protection must be tempered by an effective and adequately funded program of management. Existing and future herds of wild horses must, from time to time, be culled, weeding out the old, the sick and diseased, as well as those animals carrying a brand which do not belong to the wild horse classification.” [Enough to make one wonder how the horses were able to survive before man came along to “manage” them.]
Senator Clifford Hansen (R-Wyoming) also appeared at the hearing long enough to place in the record a statement from the Wyoming Wool Growers Associationóan organization of sheep ranchers — urging continued killing of the horses, even using such means as airplanes:
The Secretary will be obliged to control the numbers of free-roaming horses and burros in order to maintain a “thriving ecological balance among all fauna and flora on the range.” A few of the horses which would have to be removed each year would have value for saddle horses, a few could be used for rodeo stock. The vast majority would have value only for processing. Presumably, then, the bulk of the surplus animals each year would have to be disposed of by burying, burning, or some other sanitary disposal method. [emphasis added]
The statement concluded by recommending that the bill include a “procedure for the management and control of the horses and burros . . . utilizing such equipment, including airplanes, etc., required to achieve the most efficient and effective management.”
And the Wildlife Management Institute — a hunting-oriented “conservation” group that often works behind the scenes to kill or weaken conservation legislation — went so far as to testify that wild horse herds should be removed from some of their present ranges and replaced with other animals. In sum, the Institute urged that “the agency charged with management responsibilities should be given the latitude to plan and manage — not just protect.”
But the bill’s supporters, bolstered by a deluge of mail to Congress by private citizens, succeeded in pushing through the committee a bill that would have been strong enough to guarantee the survival of the remaining horses. A strongly protective bill passed the Senate with no real problems, but before it came up for a vote in the House of Representatives, the bill’s opponents made a temporarily successful, last-ditch effort to gut the legislation. Representative John Melcher (D-Montana) tacked on a crippling loophole which would have permitted the “removal” of wild horses from public lands by anyone acting in the interests of “normal and prudent husbandry needs,” a curious phrase not further defined.
Two other weakening amendments, sponsored by Congressman John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Congressman Wayne Aspinall (D-Colorado), would have provided the various state fish and game commissions a heavy hand in deciding where the horses’ ranges would be established and their allocation of forage. As a result, the state agencies would have had a federal mandate to influence the fate of the horses. These state commissions, controlled for the most part by ranching and hunting interests, were the same groups that had led, and were still involved in, the campaign to kill off the wild horses.
Faced with the impossibility of amending the bill and a choice between voting yes or no on it, the House passed the badly weakened bill. The final version would be decided at a House-Senate conference in November 1971, where the differences between the two bills would be ironed out and a compromise agreed to. In the meantime, conservationists rallied their forces, and the congressmen named above eventually agreed to a removal of the amendments and a modification of the language which greatly lessened their impact and potential harm. Mainly due to the strong stand taken by Senator Jackson, the November 1971 House-Senate conference reported out a relatively good bill that generally satisfied most of the conservation groups involved in the fight.
But this political maneuvering did have a serious impact on wild horses. Passage of the final bill was delayed by several weeks, and President Nixon waited until December 17 to sign the bill into law. Meanwhile, aware that the law protecting the horses was about to be enacted, the western “mustangers” and stockmen launched a concerted, last-chance effort to kill off as many horses as possible before the law took effect. Velma (Wild Horse Annie) Johnston alerted conservationists that “the word has gone out all through the West to get rid of as many as you can.”
She pointed out that the county commissioners of Lincoln County, Nevada, issued more mustanging permits in the weeks around October 1971 than throughout the entire history of the state. It was rumored that a new slaughterhouse had opened near the Nevada/Arizona border, and that this was where the rounded-up horses were destined for. A similar situation reportedly prevailed in Oregon and Arizona; and in Arizona, one rancher alone requested permits to round up sixty horses in that state.
With wild horses facing this new and desperate crisis, Senator Jackson and the American Horse Protection Association urged the Interior Department to take immediate measures to prevent the impending slaughter. One suggestion was to call for a moratorium on the killing or capturing of the horses on BLM and other public lands until the legislation could be passed or defeated. But, as expected, no action was forthcoming, and no attempt was made to prevent further killing. The Interior Department — true to its past record — remained indifferent to the plight of the mustangs.
But most of the wild mustangs did survive the transition period, and this law, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, appears to have saved the wild horses from virtual extinction, at least for the time being.
Nevertheless, the government’s continued lackadaisical attitude toward the mustangs makes it necessary for private conservation groups to constantly remain alert and follow the administration and enforcement of the law. Otherwise, the horses’ traditional enemies will succeed in slowly but surely eliminating them.
For example, in early 1973, the Department of the Navy decided to kill two hundred wild burros on its China Lake Naval Weapons Center in California. The Navy, claiming that it had the cooperation of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and California’s Department of Fish and Game and Department of Agriculture, had decided to kill off all these burros for “humane reasons,” since they were becoming too numerous for their habitat. The Navy also pointed out that it was taking advantage of a loophole in the law which defined “public lands” in such a way as to exclude military areas, and thus did not apply to the China Lake Weapons Center. Fortunately, a public outcry has forced the Navy to back off from its humanitarian pursuits, and it is now attempting to find a more sensible solution to the “problem” — if, indeed, one exists at all.
In their panic to escape their captors, seven of the horses and one aborted foal plunged to their deaths at the bottom of the 200-foot cliff. The ranchers claim that a mountain lion scared the horses off the cliff, but Mrs. William Blue, of the American Horse Protection Association (AHPA), was quoted by Washington Post reporter George Wilson as asking, “Is that the same cougar which sewed in the nose rings?”
After the roundup, about 40 of the surviving horses were then put in trucks and shipped 800 miles to the Central Nebraska Packing Plant in North Platte to be slaughtered for dog food at about six to eight cents a pound. Although their slaughter was prevented at the last minute, by January 1974, only 17 horses were still alive, plus one colt who was born at the packing plant. The AHPA had earlier forced the Justice Department to hire a veterinarian to treat the remaining horses, but by the time he arrived, only 22 remained alive. After eight months of being penned up at the North Platte packing plant, the remaining horses were sent in November 1973 to Idaho Falls, to await a court ruling on their fate. Upon arriving at Idaho Falls, Mrs. Blue found the horses being harassed in their pens, surrounded by the same ranchers implicated in the roundup. They were engaged in friendly conversation with Walter Ed Jones, the BLM’s local district manager who granted oral permission for the grisly roundup. (In May 1974, Jones quietly retired from BLM with full retirement benefits.)
This roundup appears to have been more than an isolated incident, and could represent a threat to the law’s effectiveness and enforceability. There are increasingly frequent reports of cattle ranchers forming vigilante groups to seek out and destroy the remaining mustang herds, “occasionally with the tacit approval of BLM,” according to the April 22, 1974, issue of Newsweek magazine. Newsweek quoted one Nevada rancher as saying, “if the bureau would just look the other way for two weeks, we could make this cattle country again.”
There are disturbing indications that this is exactly what is taking place. The AHPA — which, along with the Humane Society of the United States, has filed a suit on behalf of the horses — charges that the Idaho incident “was encouraged and permitted by the gross negligence of the Interior Department and BLM. They had been warned that this outrage was imminent, yet they ignored the warning.” The defendants in this suit are Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton; Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz; George Turcott, director of BLM; Kay W. Wilkes, director of BLM’s range management branch; William Mathews, BLM’s Idaho state director; and Walter Ed Jones, BLM’s district manager in Idaho.
Jones claims that he allowed the roundup to take place because the horses were owned, even though they were all unbranded and unshod. Moreover, some of the ranchers who rounded up the horses have admitted that the horses — who had grazed peacefully in the valley and the upper hills and mountain slopes around Howe — have been on the range since the 1940s.
Other residents of the area swear that the horses have roamed the range for as long as they can remember. The government’s initial response to the lawsuit was to try to get the trial moved from Washington, D.C., to Idaho, so that the conservationists would not be able to effectively participate in the case. It showed little interest in actually prosecuting any violations of the law or in protecting the horses; and. in mid-1974, the Interior and Justice Departments announced that no prosecutions would be undertaken of the men who rounded up the Idaho herd.
As of mid-1974, the Howe ranchers were still claiming the horses, in the hope of sending them back to the slaughterhouse. But Senator James Abourezk (D-South Dakota) and Congressman Gilbert Gude (R-Maryland) have also claimed the horses on behalf of the American people, in the hope of releasing them on the open range. In the meantime, this pathetic remnant of a once wild, free-roaming herd was languishing behind fences, awaiting the court’s final decision.
A perhaps even greater threat to the wild horses came in November 1973, when the state of New Mexico’s Livestock Board filed a claim of ownership for all the wild horses and burros found on public or private land within that state. In February 1975, a three-judge federal panel in New Mexico struck down the law as unconstitutional. But after some prodding by the AHPA and Senator Jackson, the Justice Department agreed to appeal the decision of the Supreme Court.
The federal government is also attempting to weaken the law. At congressional oversight hearings held on June 26, 1974, Assistant Secretary of Interior Jack Horton and Associate Director of BLM George Turcott asked that the law be changed to make it easier to round up wild horses and burros by using aircraft and mechanized equipment. The Interior Department witnesses, under questioning, agreed that horses sold or given away under their proposed amendments could end up being killed for dog food.
An additional disappointment in the administration of this law is the way the Interior and Agriculture Departments have picked members of the nine-person joint advisory board to help carry out the law. Packing advisory boards with vested-interest groups is an old government tactic for weakening or rendering ineffective laws that they don’t like. Only two members of this recently appointed board can be considered friends of the horses: Pearl Twyne of the American Horse Protection Association of Great Falls, Virginia, and Velma Johnston (Wild Horse Annie) of Reno, Nevada. The other seven members primarily represent the livestock industry and the range management lobby, which have vigorously opposed this law.
As sad as the wild horse situation is, it does demonstrate that a concerned and active citizenry can affect federal legislation and actually save a species from extinction. If enough people show their interest, Congress will take action, even in the face of strong opposition from vested-interest groups. The letter-writing campaign conducted by schoolchildren across the country was instrumental in securing this legislation. Some of the letters were eloquent in their simplicity, showing more wisdom and common sense than all of the testimony of the scientists and wildlife managers combined. One letter from Lisa Beatty, a sixth-grader from Parkersburg, West Virginia, read at the Senate hearing by Hope Ryden, stated,
Here’s what I don’t understand. Long time ago, when they had horses for transportation, that’s the only way they could get somewhere. And now these horses are being killed. I wonder how they feel, the horses, after doing all that work when risking their own lives in battles. Now why can’t they have peace and quiet?
Another youngster, Kathy Burns from West Greenwich, Rhode Island, wrote:
When they say to you, what good are they, meaning the horses. The horses are plenty good. They’re beautiful. Consider this.
In her book, America’s Last Wild Horses, Hope Ryden describes the last remaining wild horse left in the Fort Hood area of Texas, which was once the heartland of these animals. This determined stallion has avoided capture and “rendering” so long that he has been nicknamed “Born Free.” Despite his advanced age, the proud and lonely horse still rears up and paws a defiant challenge at planes or helicopters that approach too close. This sole, pitiful remnant of a once vast herd is an apt symbol of his fellow mustangs.
Unless our government takes more effective action to protect the wild horses of the West, Born Free may well herald the fate of the last of these living reminders of the early West.
Lewis Regenstein is the author of The Politics of Extinction, from which this chapter has been excerpted and used with his kind permission.
By Laura Moretti, The Animals Voice
Fifty million years ago, a small dog-like creature called Eohippus, meaning “dawn horse,” evolved on the North American continent. In fact, this forerunner to the modern horse was traced to the Tennessee Valley and was about the size of a fox; it made its home in swamplands, feeding off plant life. Eohippus slowly evolved into Mesohippus, the size of an average collie. Mesohippus had three toes and eventually became an inhabitant of the prairie. Its shape changed in conformity as its habitat changed: It grew taller, its teeth and middle toe grew longer, the latter growing into a hoof. The evolution continued until Equus caballus — the horse as we know it today — was formed. After disappearing into Asia and Africa presumably 11,000-13,000 years ago, the horse returned to our soil with the Spanish in the early 1500s. From their hands, a few escaped onto the American canvas and reverted to a wild state. The horse had come home — but the welcome has only proved deadly.
According to Western writer J. Frank Dobie, their numbers in the 19th century reached more than 2 million. But by the time the wild horse received federal protection in 1971, it was officially estimated that only about 10,000 of them roamed America’s plains. More than 1 million had been conscripted for World War I combat; the rest had been hunted for their flesh, for the chicken feed and dog food companies, and for the sport of it. They were chased by helicopters and sprayed with buckshot; they were run down with motorized vehicles and, deathly exhausted, weighted with tires so they could be easily picked up by rendering trucks. They were run off cliffs, gunned down at full gallop, shot in corralled bloodbaths, and buried in mass graves.
Like the bison, the wild horse had been driven to the edge.
Enter Velma Johnston, a.k.a. Wild Horse Annie. After seeing blood coming from a livestock truck, she followed it to a rendering plant and discovered how America’s wild horses were being pipelined out of the West. Her crusade led to the passage of a 1959 law that banned the use of motorized vehicles and aircraft to capture wild horses.
But it was mass public outcry that ended the open-faced carnage — and it came from the nation’s schoolchildren and their mothers: In 1971, more letters poured into Congress over the plight of wild horses than any other non-war issue in U.S. history. There wasn’t a single dissenting vote, and one congressman alone reported receiving 14,000 letters. President Nixon signed the bill into law on December 15, 1971. And so the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed, declaring that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.” The Act was later amended by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978.
By the people, of the people, for the people. There has never been a truer case — nor one so blatantly ignored.
Wild Horse Annie’s 1959 legislation allowed the mustang (from the Spanish word mestengo, or “stray beast”) to get a desperate foothold in the American West. Wild horse numbers grew and consequently encouraged the wrath of ranchers who paid to graze their cattle on the public domain. Ranchers no longer viewed horses as necessary tools for moving cattle, but as nuisance animals and competitors for grasslands upon which their cattle fed — marking the beginning of the mass slaughter of horses.
In cattlemen terms, wild horses are referred to as “sonsofbitches,” eyesores, habitat destroyers, and misfits; in BLM terms, they are “shitters.” History, on the other hand, will bear them out as scapegoats: Contrary to popular belief, wild horses are not destroying public lands where they are found among six million heads of cattle and sheep. In fact, a 1990 General Accounting Office Report showed that livestock consumed 81% of Nevada’s forage in the four studied horse areas.
The animals also bear the brunt of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — comprised of cattle ranchers — and the government agency appointed to manage the West, horses and all — making it the biggest horse wrangler in the country. And it is a war as old as the West itself. What is useful is used, what is not is destroyed — with contempt. In a mechanized world, not even the cattle industry has a need for living horsepower.
Despite numerous attempts by vested interests to cripple the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, not a single amendment has passed. Americans have made their intentions known over and over again: They want wild horses — these feral, exotic, “sonsofbitches” — left in the public domain. And they wrongly believe the government is granting their wish. The Act states, “It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.” And yet, unabated, the BLM, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service continue to engage in all those acts without reprimand.
The Numbers Game
The history of wild horse management is as complex as it is controversial, a tragically grim and deadly tale of systematic elimination. Those entrusted with the power to enforce the people’s law have been using it to the detriment of the horses — and doing so behind the people’s backs.
In fact, the BLM refers to roundups as “gathers,” making them more palatable to public opinion. When the 1971 Act was passed, wild horses and burros were assigned 305 Herd Management Areas (HMAs), representing some 80 million acres of public land in 16 states to call their home. Over the years, agency regulations — not legislative amendments — have stripped the horses of their homeland; they are now managed in 186 HMAs on less than 44 million acres in just ten states.
The 1971 Act stipulated that the wild horse be managed at its then-current population level, officially estimated by BLM at 17,000. To the horses’ detriment, both sides of the wild horse issue agreed to allow the government to manage wild horse populations at that “official” 1971 level. Eleven years later, a study by the National Academy of Sciences found BLM’s 1971 estimate to have been “undoubtedly low to an unknown, but perhaps substantial, degree,” given subsequent census results and taking into account the horses’ slow growth rate and the number of horses since removed. But the damage had already been done; “management levels” had been etched in stone, and processes for removal of “excess” horses were well in place.
In 1975, determined to remove the wild horses, but unable to capture them on horseback, the BLM amended the 1959 law (prohibiting motorized vehicles for captures), thus allowing them the use of aircraft, such as helicopters. It also couldn’t settle on whether the 1971 Act referred to the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to oversee the enforcement of the law. The lands — and the rules — were split: the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service would be bound by Interior regulations; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would operate under Agriculture. In short, the BLM now has the power to use motorized vehicles to capture wild horses, but it can’t kill them, whereas the other agencies can kill horses; they just can’t use motorized vehicles to catch them.
So just how many horses could the BLM legally remove? Underfunded, the agency agreed to settle the numbers question through the 1982 National Academy of Sciences study. Six years and $6 million later, and partly based on the number of horses being rounded up and adopted, the Academy reported that there was a base wild horse population of 50,000 animals at the time the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 was passed into law. What they didn’t find, however — and nor could the BLM prove it to them — was any negative impact on grazing by wild horses. Of course, the finding wasn’t good enough for some. Though the figure settled the question of how many horses the 1971 Act protected, the BLM’s estimate of “excess” horses was, well, outnumbered. It had to leave 50,000 animals on public lands after all.
Enter Senator James McClure (R-ID), head of the Committee for Energy and Natural Resources and for Interior and Insular Affairs. Himself a man of the West, and believing the horse to be a useless free-loader on public lands, he set out to help rid public lands of them, despite their existing legal protections. A stacked deck of officials was appointed to the BLM based on McClure’s ability to fund the agency, and — as some activists describe it — a “new kingdom” emerged. New trucks. New positions. And a new plan.
So, the BLM created its Adopt-a-Horse program in 1976, mainly as a means to rid the west of wild horses — but this time with the public’s permission. Since the program began, more than 200,000 horses and burros have been rounded up off public lands and sifted through the adoption pipeline. The BLM claims it has adopted out 157,000 of the animals, though many of its captives have since been sent to slaughter — and often with the BLM’s help.
In 1984, for example, the BLM waived its fees to encourage more adoptions, and thousands of horses began arriving at slaughterhouses for profit. Little had changed in the West: although there were no slaughters on the open range, no mass graves (or not any that anyone knew about), horses were still being taken from the public domain to the killing plants, one way or another. To appease public sentiment, the BLM then enacted a titling program that stipulated that an adopter couldn’t technically “own” a wild horse until one year after its adoption, thereby making it illegal to sell it to anyone else. In effect, it made the expense of caring for a horse during that time outweigh its meat price.
Then, in the summer of 1993, the BLM estimated the wild horse population in Nevada to be 24,000. Determined to show that the BLM’s figure of “excess” horses was inaccurate, wild horse advocates logged more than 250 hours in the air, along with Michael Blake, author of Dances With Wolves, counting wild horses. They found 300 skulls and only 8,300 free-roaming horses. “This government is taking our horses when and where they please,” Michael Blake told the press. “They are taking them in the dark of night. The wild horses not going to the slaughterhouse floor — where their throats are cut for money — are traveling to points of incarceration.” The BLM recommended the removal of more than 9,600 animals — 1,300 more than horse defenders and Blake could even find on the entire Nevada desert.
In 1997, Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza exposed widespread corruption within the Adopt-a-Horse program in seven articles that ran throughout the year. That same year, a federal grand jury collected evidence that showed BLM officials had allowed the slaughter of hundreds of wild horses, falsified records, and tried to prevent investigators from uncovering the truth. The case was eventually closed down after federal officials intervened.
A few years later, in 2001, the BLM obtained a 50% increase in its annual budget to $29 million for implementation of an aggressive removal campaign. Twenty-four thousand horses were slated for capture with an “appropriate management level” target of 26,000. By its most recent figures, the BLM estimates the total American wild horse population to be about 33,000 animals (of which about half can be found in Nevada).
In 2005, BLM’s wild horse and burro budget was increased by another third. In Fiscal Year 2010, it received another 30 percent boost, now costing the taxpayer $64 million a year to allow the BLM to continue to round-up and pipeline thousands more wild horses. Today, some 36,000 wild horses are awaiting their fate in holding facilities such as Palomino Valley in Nevada, and Susanville in northern California. Four-year contracts have been awarded to private ranchers in Oklahoma and Kansas to manage long-term holding facilities. Each can hold 2,000-3,500 horses.
Put them somewhere. Put them anywhere. Just get them off public land. If you can’t legally kill them, that is.
The Name and the Lands Game
Why is there such determination to rid our public lands of wild horses? For many — the livestock lobby, government agencies, and even environmental and wildlife protection organizations — the wild horse isn’t a wild animal at all, but a domesticated animal gone feral. This mongrel of a horse is not, they argue, native American wildlife. Considered an “exotic,” it competes for habitat with such species as elk and pronghorn antelope, and it decimates rangeland used by domestic livestock. It must be controlled, removed, and, if necessary, gunned down.
Today, one can easily adopt a wild horse for as little as $125 a head. The cost to taxpayers for removing that animal from the wild is more than ten-fold. Why pay so much to remove one horse from the public domain? It boils down to money: Under the Department of Interior’s “multiple-use” principles, only so many cattle, so much wildlife, and so many wild horses are allowed on federal lands. Wildlife is “paid for” (in part) by hunters’ licensing fees (and general taxpayer dollars). Cattle are “paid for” (in part) by the meat industry: $1.35 per head per month to graze the public domain (and taxpayer funded subsidies). Horses, on the other hand, take up one “Animal Unit Month” (AUM), but no one is paying their way. Each horse removed from the West frees up another AUM for cattle or sheep or game antelope. It goes something like this:
Say, for example, you acquire a government permit to run cattle on public lands. And let’s say that permit costs you $1.35 per cow per month, and a portion of that permit money you spend comes back to you from the government in “range improvement funds.” The cost to run your cows has just been reduced.
In order to acquire that permit, however, you would have to own a “base ranch” from which you run cattle onto public lands. And let’s say your ranch will run a thousand head of cows. Those 1,000 cows use up 6,000 AUMs (six months of AUMs times 1,000 cows). Because all ranches are sold on an Animal Unit (AU) basis with an average going rate of $3,000 per AU, your 1,000-head ranch is hypothetically worth $3 million in AUs.
Now let’s say there just happens to be 200 wild horses on those federal lands you are leasing. If you remove these wild horses and put another 200 head of cattle in their place, you have increased your AUs by 200, and the value of your ranch automatically grows by $600,000.
Factor in that roughly 35% of the cattle ranchers on BLM and Forest Service lands — corporations like Texaco, Metropolitan Life, Anheuser-Busch, Hunt Oil, and the like — dominate more than 80% of the Western public range, and you will get an idea of the kind of money exchanging hands out there.
Misfits Among Us
In response to numerous attempts by vested interests to cripple the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act, Americans have made their intentions known time and again: they want wild horses — these feral, exotic, “sonsofbitches” — left in the public domain. In 1985, a provision aimed at allowing the government to sell our wild horses to slaughter came to a vote in Congress and was defeated. In 2004, the horses were not so lucky: Senator Burns (R-MT) managed to bypass the democratic process by slipping his slaughter provision into the 3,300-page federal budget. The slaughter of America’s wild horses was rubber-stamped, the will of the people ignored.
It can be said that no other animal in human history has had the impact on our lives as much as the horse. Millions have lost their lives in human wars. They have been used to transport us and our belongings across continents, to deliver our mail and network our civilizations, and they have plowed the fields that feed us. In these modern times, the horse is an entertainer, an athlete, an icon, and a friend — with more than six million of them in the care of American horse “lovers.”
We have long celebrated the horse, in art and mythology (the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the winged Pegasus, the Centaur) and in literature and symbolism (we still measure power in horses). But we have abandoned this animal of the plains. Though we owe them civilization as we know it, we no longer hear the wind in their wild ears; we cannot see the fire in their eyes. In return for the sacrifices of their ancestors, we have done little else but annihilate and degrade them.
They are sonsofbitches.
They are misfits.
And shame on us. Instead of demanding that Congress enforce the existing law that protects these animals in their homeland — a law brought about by the people, mind you — we sit idly by and accept the government’s figures and its biased portrayal of what is happening in the West. We prefer the taste of hamburger over the image of wild and free-running horses. And we line up at auction yards to adopt what are now fireless, broken-spirited wild ponies.